The virtual peloton – Is it here to stay?

The coronavirus lockdown changed many aspects of our everyday lives. For some the changes have been small, and manageable. For others, its impact has been felt deeply, threatening people’s livelihoods and financial security in profound ways. 

One of the industries that has been curtailed is obviously professional sport. Football leagues around the world have been delayed and many will not recommence this season. Even the prospect of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is in jeopardy. 

In professional road cycling, the season had only just begun in earnest with the first of the spring classics. The pandemic has resulted in many race cancellations including the Giro d’Italia, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. There are some that had been cancelled but have recently been added to the calendar at a later date. Strada Bianche and Milan – San Remo are now both scheduled for the end of summer, before the postponed Tour de France is due to take place.

There has been some racing to watch however, in the form of the Zwift Tour for All. For those who haven’t heard of it, Zwift is an online gaming platform which allows cyclists to hook their turbo trainer up to their computer. The riders are represented in the game on a virtual ride solo or in groups, and even hold races in which the riders can compete.

The marriage of the coronavirus lockdown and Zwift’s online racing platform would seem to be a good fit to help ease lockdown boredom for thirsty racing fans. Zwift have certainly grasped the opportunity with the Tour For All, which was a fundraising event for the Doctors Without Borders COVID-19 crisis fund. This event included a 5 stage professional points race, with real pros competing for the top prize.

What is it like to watch?

I came across this race on Eurosport by complete accident and chuckled to myself about how this was a useful idea in the current situation, but no one would want to watch pro avatars riding in a virtual world. But, do you know what? I didn’t hate it! Even my three year old son was happy to watch the virtual peloton battle it out!

Zwift Tour For All
Signing up for a virtual race is a lot less daunting than in the real world

This was not the first virtual race with pros taking part. There was even a 45 minute e-version of the cancelled Tour of Flanders in April, with Greg Van Avermaet taking the win.

The production was a little bit shoddy, but given the lockdown conditions maybe that was to be expected. More than happy to give it the benefit of the doubt there. It’s got me thinking though. Is there any reason this type of racing would not continue to grow in the coming years? 

Zwift will almost certainly be keen to repeat this as the exposure they would gain would launch their brand into new territory. I would argue if there is a virtual racing calendar in the future and Zwift run it, this could all but kill every competitor they currently have. 

I was seriously impressed when I looked at who would be riding in the virtual peloton. There were some BIG names on the start list. Marianne Vos, Mathieu Van Der Poel and Elia Viviani to name a few. Attracting this calibre of rider is a definite feather in the cap for Zwift and will attract a lot of new users to the platform.

Taking tips from online gaming

Cycling has never been exactly popular as far as gaming is concerned. Although I remember some good BMX games back in the day. Road cycling in particular does not lend itself well for video gaming. But if you swap the controller out for a real bicycle as with Zwift, it changes this completely. 

Van Der Poel riding in the virtual  bunch
It was cool to see the pain caves of the pro peloton

It brings a new dimension to video gaming, as it’s not just the speed at which you hit the buttons on your controller! Anyone remember “Track and Field”?? In Zwift it’s very unlikely that a 12 year old in outer Mongolia with lightning reflexes is going to hand you your arse in the game! Strength in the real world translates to strength in-game. There is however some added spice to proceedings that come straight out of the cheat codes of traditional video games. 

Powerups

Powerups are available to the riders and can be awarded and used during the race. These are various performance boosters which, for example, temporarily improve aerodynamics or reduce your weight in the game. I was pretty sceptical about the idea at first, but having watched a few races they really do make it more interesting to watch! There is definitely a new tactical element particularly in a sprint finish. The riders who’ve saved some powerups often end up battling it out. The combination of powerups having a definite effect on who wins and loses.

Will people actually watch though?

As I have said earlier, it really wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Watching avatars is obviously no where near as interesting as watching a real life race. However, getting live feeds from professionals on trainers in their living rooms and garages was actually pretty cool. It added something to break up the monotony of watching expressionless sims.

If you’d have told me 10 years ago that millions of people would regularly watch other people play video games over the internet I would have laughed. When I was a kid nothing was more frustrating or boring than watching my cousins complete Super Mario World for the 3rd time that day! If you then told me that the people playing those games would win millions of dollars in prize money for their efforts, I would’ve stopped laughing and called the men in white coats.

The age of the Internet is proving time and time again that people will watch all kinds of stupid shit. And where the people’s attention is, there is serious money to be made. Last year, the total prize money awarded in Fortnite was over $64 million.

Vos won the womens stage on the day
Vos proving she’s as good on the turbo as she is on the road

Virtual doping

Where there is glory or money to be made there is the inevitable question of how to stop athletes (and doctors!) cheating. Well, I have not seen anything on doping control in the pro-version of Zwift Tour For All. Perhaps WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) will have a crack team ready to abseil down into Coryn Rivera’s garage with a sackful of sample vials. 

It’s not just banned substances either, you have the addition of other ‘doping’ techniques already seen in the amateur Zwift races. Changing your weight in game to improve your climbing. Or using an electric bike on your trainer. You even have so called ‘gender doping’ with men entering women only races to win additional points.

Youtuber Cameron Jeffers was stripped of his esports national title last year. He admitted to cheating on his way to the final race by using a simulation to acquire an in game super-bike.

I’m sure technology will provide the answer to all this in time, but I see it being a pressing issue if the virtual peloton continues its rise in popularity.

Platforms vs UCI

The UCI, the world governing body of cycling will probably not relish the prospect of new players like Zwift having the power that could come with a virtual peloton. They may even try to disrupt its development. They could threaten teams with expulsion from certain races or even the pro tour altogether, if they choose to divert riders to new racing platforms. 

My personal view is that the UCI would be wise not fight the winds of change. The internet is disrupting every aspect of business globally, and pro-cycling will be no different. If they tried to resist these changes and fight against the tide, I fear the races we know and love could be all but washed away. A much better play would be to work with Zwift (and other platforms) to allow virtual racing to take place alongside the traditional racing calendar. Perhaps virtual races could replace some of the less prestigious races at world tour level. 

Conclusion

What at first glance appeared to be a stupid thing to watch actually made me think more about the idea generally. I can see much for Zwift to gain from more races and they definitely reflect an increasing trend in cyclists using the virtual world for bike rides. 

The sponsorship and revenue that could be generated could be bigger than that from the traditional races, in my opinion. As we know sponsorship really underpins pro-cycling so this is another thing in Zwift’s favour. At this point I’m running out of reasons as to why virtual racing won’t continue in the future. There is likely to be a scramble by all virtual racing platforms to assemble races for next year in a bid to establish themselves as the market leader.

It’s a pretty exciting time to be a cycling fan actually. More people are riding bikes every day. And while disruption to the racing calendar may have upset us temporarily, there could be something new coming to our screens next season and beyond.

What do you think? Is it all nonsense? Or is it a natural evolution of racing in the Internet age?

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